For those of us who have spent most of our lives here, America doesn’t seem like an odd place. You often hear people making jokes like, “We don’t have a culture.” We’ve been gone for thirteen months, which really isn’t all that long, but it was apparently long enough for us to get used to other cultures and ways of life. Now everyday things around here keep surprising me.
Everything in America is huge. The houses, the yards, the cars, the televisions, the roads, the portions, the people. Really, everything seems comically??over-sized??to me, like I’ve somehow wandered onto Big Island in Super Mario Brothers 3. The urban sprawl around here is also pretty ridiculous. I can’t believe the amount of time Americans spend in their cars. Parking lots take up acres of space. It seems like nobody walks anywhere, which is pretty alarming to me, especially since walking became our main mode of transportation during our trip.
Related to that is the lack of public transportation options. I never thought about this before, but one important benefit of public transportation is that it forces people to walk. Say you live five minutes from your train stop and your work is also five minutes from the train. You would have to walk twenty minutes a day just to get to and from work. I’m not quite sure why the transit options here are so limited. It’s kind of a vicious cycle, with nobody wanting to take the bus because it’s not very efficient, and the city not wanting to put more money into the system because nobody uses it. I think the bus system in Madison is more complicated than almost all of the bus/train systems we encountered while we were traveling. (The notable exception is the Tokyo subway system–that was such a mess.)
Other things around here are strange, too. The money is all green. Prices don’t include taxes or tips, and the guidelines for tipping are pretty confusing. Gigantic cups of soda are cheap and often have free refills. There are strict rules about alcohol, like when you can sell it, whom you can sell it to, and where you can drink it. Hardly anyone smokes. The waiter brings you the bill before you ask for it, which now seems incredibly rude, like you’re being shooed out the door. On the other hand, servers and cashiers are all expected to be nice to you. They can even lose their job if they’re not nice to you, but it all seems so artificial. Sure, nobody likes the snobby waiters in Paris, but do you really need a big fake smile and a conversation about the weather while you’re buying your groceries?
Door knobs here are round and impossible to open if your hands are full. The toilets have way too much water in them. Prescription drugs are not only advertised, but aggressively marketed to their target audiences. Some foods are eaten with a fork and some are eaten with your hands, and with some food, like chicken or potatoes, it depends on how it’s prepared. (Baked chicken is eaten with a fork, but fried chicken is eaten with your hands.) Garbage disposals are both strange and convenient. Kids in high school can drive and many of them have their own cars. Driving is very neat and orderly and everyone follows the rules. Soccer is almost never on TV (thankfully). Americans tend to be very religious and assume that you are as well. Children are very spoiled and their parents talk to them instead of punish them. “Now Timmy, it hurts Grandma and makes her feel bad when you kick her in the leg, so please don’t do that. Do you think that sounds fair?”
The incredible wealth and waste here is hard to believe. I think the constant talk about the terrible economy is kind of funny, because everyone here seems to have tons of material possessions and I still haven’t seen anyone digging in dumpsters for dinner. Water, energy, and food is wasted in huge amounts here all the time. To name just one example, in many other countries, it’s normal to turn the shower off while you’re lathering up your shampoo or soap. In America, that seems like a??ridiculous??practice.
This whole??phenomenon of feeling out of place in your own country is known as Reverse Culture Shock. Sometimes it’s fun to see the differences because it feels like we’re traveling in a foreign country again. The problem is that the place we’ve been homesick for, and looking forward to returning to, feels completely different.??I think that’s harder to deal with because, obviously, America hasn’t changed. We have. As Thomas Wolfe noted over 70 years ago, you can’t go home again. Once you leave, “home” as you remember it will never exist again. I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere and that’s an uncomfortable feeling. I’m sure once we settle into a routine and get back to work, life will seem more normal, but I don’t know if things will ever be the same. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. After all, challenging yourself and getting to know your home culture is an important part of travel. It just means we might be consistently confused and amazed by this country for the next few months.
Top ten experiences?
- Going out for sushi and a jazz/funk concert in Tokyo with Yoshiko and other couchsurfers.
- The Gracia festival in Barcelona with Jordi and Tanit.
- Celebrating New Year’s Eve on the beach in Ko Lipe, Thailand.
- Hiking in the Swiss Alps.
- Hiking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, China.
- Driving and hiking in the Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand.
- Hanging out with friends and family in the beautiful Cinque Terre, Italy.
- Seeing the Great Wall of China.
- Scuba diving in the Andaman Sea.
- Oktoberfest in Munich.
- Diving in the Andaman Sea, Thailand
- Hiking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
- Walking the Great Wall of China
- Seeing the Gobi Desert, Mongolia
- Climbing on ancient Angkor Wat temple ruins, Cambodia
- Hiking in the Swiss Alps
- Hanging out with friends and family in Cinque Terre, Italy
- The Gracia festival parade where devils shot fireworks at people in Barcelona, Spain
- Eating sushi and seeing jazz in Tokyo, Japan
- Watching a baseball game in the cheering section in South Korea
Bottom ten experiences?
- The infamous cat bite in Gili Trawangan and its aftermath.
- Getting sick in Sengiggi, Indonesia.
- Getting an ear infection in Thailand.
- Getting sick in Kep, Cambodia.
- Getting sick on the plane ride from Hong Kong to Seoul.
- Being stuck in Ulaanbaatar while waiting for our Russian visas.
- Walking around in Phnom Penh.
- Wandering around, trying to find a place to stay in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand.
- Missing friends and family.
- Getting lost all the time (although you do get used to it).
- Nikki’s rabies scare in Indonesia
- The train strike in Italy
- Almost having nowhere to stay in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
- Rainy weather ruining or short stay in Macau and Hong Kong
- United Airlines losing Nikki’s mom’s bag, and our new clothes
- Waiting for our Russian visas in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
- Catching fever in Vietnam
- Commuting on bus between Hangzhou and Lin’an, China
- Getting a Chinese visa in Bangkok, Thailand
- The nasty food and airag in the Mongolian countryside
Top three meals?
- Mama Naxi’s family dinners in Lijiang, China. Steamed rice with bowls and bowls of different stir-fried seafood, meats, and vegetables.
- Sushi in Kanazawa, Japan. I can still remember how fresh and amazing the shrimp and eel was.
- Our dinner at the Good Luck Thai restaurant in Hong Kong with Sid and Rad. Great food and company.
- The claypot place in Yangshuo, China. Between that and the dumpling place, we ate there every night. The claypot was hot, extremely spicy, and delicious.
- Sushi at the place Yoshiko took us in Tokyo, Japan. It may have been on par with other sushi we had in Japan, but I loved it so much because it was my first time eating nigiri rather than maki and it was with great company.
- Portuguese chorizo at Fernando’s in Macau. We ventured to the opposite side of the island on a rainy afternoon because Anthony Bordain went here and loved it, and I’d totally agree this was amazing. Finish it with an original egg tart from Lord Stow’s bakery down the street.
Bottom three meals?
- The “goatsickle” in Mongolia. It was very sweet of our driver to buy them for us, but I wish he hadn’t bothered.
- The chicken in Tai Shan, China.
- Very sour dairy products in Mongolia.
- The infamous “goatsicle” in Mongolia. Sorry Gana, I purposely “accidentally” dropped it on the ground because it was so bad.
- Our awful and expensive dinner atop Tai’shan.
- Our very first meal in Southeast Asia in Kuta, Bali. We wanted to go to an “authentic” place and ended up with very substandard food for Indonesia.
Top five countries?
- New Zealand
- New Zealand
Favorite place we stayed?
Nikki: My favorite places were all when we were guests in people’s homes. Besides that, Traders Hotel in KL was awesome and so was the guesthouse in Amed, Bali when we had our own balcony overlooking the ocean.
Brad: Traders in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Worst place we stayed?
Nikki: The room at the top of Tai Shan, China was pretty bad. I also remember some small and dirty places in Cambodia.
Brad: That dump in Sengiggi, Indonesia. A hot, mosquito-infested, and no running water room was not the best place for Nikki to get really sick.
Nikki: We saw so many weird things, I don’t even know where to start.
Brad: We saw a lot of strange stuff. I’d say it’s a tie between the Capuchin Monastery in Rome and penis park in Samcheok, South Korea.
Most interesting thing?
Nikki: Mongolia interested me the most. The history of the country, the rise and fall of the Khan empire, and the nomadic culture were all really interesting to learn about.
Brad: Mongolia. The fact that people still live a nomadic lifestyle on what might as well be the Moon is amazing. Their customs and way of life was very interesting.
Nikki: Not renting a llama for a hike in Kaikoura, New Zealand. We read about a farm that provided llamas to carry your bags for a day of hiking, but at the time we decided it was too expensive. Now I wish we would have done it, even though it would have been really silly. Also, I wish we would’ve gone to Laos.
Brad: That we didn’t get a motorcycle license before the trip. There were a lot of places in Southeast Asia we wanted to go but couldn’t get to because our travel insurance wouldn’t cover motorbike disasters. And SE Asia’s not a great place to learn how to ride a motorbike.
Top five beaches?
- Gili Trawangan, Indonesia
- Whitehaven Beach, Australia
- Cathedral Cove, New Zealand
- Ko Lipe, Thailand
- Ko Mook, Thailand
- Whitehaven Beach, Australia
- Gili Trawangan, Indonesia
- Rabbit Island, Cambodia
- Byron Bay, Australia
- Ko Lipe, Thailand
Top five cities?
- Hong Kong
- Tokyo, Japan
- Barcelona, Spain
- Sydney, Australia
- Hong Kong
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
Nikki: The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It was depressing, of course, but also very well-done and informative. I think I learned more there than I did in all the other museums put together. I wish everyone could spend an afternoon there.
Brad: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Very powerful, sad, and informative.
Most helpful thing we packed?
Nikki: Probably my headlamp. We had lots of late nights or early mornings when we needed to pack or unpack our bags in the dark without waking up the whole dorm. Plus, some of the places we went didn’t have street lights, so a flashlight was pretty essential at night.
Brad: My camera. Many other travel blogs say not to bring such a big camera, but I wouldn’t have gotten the shots I did with a point-and-shoot. It was bulky, but I’m really glad I brought it along.
Thing we wished we had packed?
Nikki: I really wish we would have taken a pair of travel speakers. We thought about it, but decided they would take up too much room and that we wouldn’t use them enough to be worth it. It turned out there were many, many times when one of us said, “Too bad we can’t listen to some music now.” They definitely would have been worth the space they would have taken up.
Brad: An unlocked cell phone. I had my iPhone, but it was locked to AT&T and the power button was broken, so it was only useful when connected to WiFi. There were many times we needed to call hostel, hosts, and businesses and we couldn’t.
How does your view of the world now compare to how you saw the world before you started?
Nikki: The world is somehow both more complicated and more simple than I realized. On the one hand, there are all of these other cultures that are so unique and confusing to outsiders, but at the same time people all over the world enjoy pretty much the same things: spending time with loved ones, eating good meals, playing games, enjoying nature and beauty. I don’t understand how everyone can be so alike and yet so different.
Brad: The world is much larger than I ever thought. We traveled for a year and barely scratched the surface on what there is to see. It’s also a lot safer than I imagined.
What did you miss the most while on the road?
Nikki: Pizza. (And maybe my family.)
Brad: Family of course. While in Asia, I missed good western food.
From the places we visited, where would you most want to live for a year?
Nikki: I know I was only there for 14 hours, but I would seriously consider Dublin. Of the places I’ve seen a little bit more of, I think Barcelona or Tokyo would be at the top of my list.
Tips for other world travelers?
Nikki: Don’t be afraid! Just go have an adventure!
- Get an unlocked smartphone and buy cheap prepaid SIM cards in the countries you visit. Even if you don’t have a data plan, with a smartphone you can download maps and travel articles of where you are when you have WiFi. Skype is a great, cheap way to call home.
- Pack light. The longer you travel, the less you need, because you’ll be doing laundry and running out of shampoo pretty soon anyways.
- Learn Hello and Thank You in the local languages. For 80% of travel, that’s all you’ll really need. Pantomime and picture menus go a long way, and English really is the universal language of travel.
- Get a motorcycle license before going to Southeast Asia. Motorbike, though dangerous, is the best way of getting to the beautiful countryside. In many countries, it’s illegal to drive one without a motorcycle license, which isn’t a problem with cops, but is for travel insurance.
- Countries we visited: 26
- Continents visited:??3
- Days on the road: 399
- Distance traveled:??45,534 miles (1.8??times the circumference of Earth)
- Distance traveled by airplane:??23,100 miles
- Distance traveled over land/water: 22,434 miles
- Hours traveling over land/water: 844 (35 days)
- Hours in the air: 50
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 53
- Places we stayed: 167
- City we stayed in the longest:??Bangkok (11 days)
- Time zone changes: 19
- Currencies used: 19
- Olympic host cities we visited: 12
- Nights we stayed in:
- Hostel dorm rooms: 103 (26%)
- Hostel private rooms: 76 (19%)
- Hotel rooms: 74 (19%)
- Guesthouses: 58 (15%)
- CouchSurfing: 7 (2%)
- Airbnb: 23 (6%)
- Tents, park huts, or gers: 23 (6%)
- On a boat: 8 (2%)
- On a train: 11 (3%)
- On a bus: 4 (1%)
- On a plane: 2 (1%)
- In a home: 6 (2%)
- Blog Posts:??113
- Comments: 201
- Words: 75,010 (664 words per post)
- Google Analytics stats:
- Page views: 14,564
- Visits: 6,747
- Unique visitors: 2,156
- Flights taken: 14
- Distance Brad drove:??4,032 miles
- Countries that drive on the left: 10; on the right: 16
- Overnight trains, planes, buses, and ferries: 21
- Cities we used subway systems in: 24
- Way we entered the countries: by air: 8; by water: 4; by land: 15
- Scuba Diving
- Dives completed: 27
- Total underwater time:??19 hours??55 minutes
- Maximum depth: 97 feet
- Caches found: 85
- Countries we found caches in: 22
- Movies we saw in theatres: 3
- Sports games we went to: 3 (Rugby in New Zealand, Baseball in S. Korea and Japan)
- Books Brad read on the trip: 54,??for 20,615 pages (list)
- Photos taken: 18,572
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 4,372, 24% of all photos taken
Cost per category:
- Transportation: 31.1%
- Lodging: 21.5%
- Food, non-alcoholic drink: 14.8%
- Activities and admission fees: 8.6%
- Gear and pre-trip expenses: 6.7%
- Scuba diving: 5.3%
- Alcohol: 4.2%
- Visas: 2%
- Internet access and this website: 1.2%
- Miscellaneous (toiletries, laundry, haircuts,??souvenirs, etc.): 4.6%
Most Expensive Countries:
- Australia *
- Japan 
- Netherlands 
- New Zealand 
- Germany 
Least Expensive Countries:
- Malaysia *
- Czech Republic 
- Indonesia 
- Vietnam 
- Cambodia 
* Indicates the number of weeks we could have stayed in only that country on our original budget if we hadn’t traveled anywhere else.
Sunrise on the last day of our trip
We didn’t realize it when we booked our flight home, but we actually had a 14 hour layover in Dublin. We decided to take advantage of this and??stayed at a??hostel that was right in the Temple Bar area of town. Once we got checked in (which took forever because the hostel had messed up our booking), we went out looking for a pub. Many of them had already closed for the night, but we found a lively one with a band playing an eclectic mix of tunes. Since we didn’t feel like dancing, we went over to the quiet half of the pub and tried a pint of Guinness. It really does taste better??in Ireland, although I’m not exactly sure how to describe the difference. The flavor seemed richer and the texture was nice and velvety.
The next morning we had enough time for our second major objective: an Irish breakfast. We went to The Earl, a little place where everyone seemed to know each other. I asked Dennis, the owner, what a traditional Irish breakfast consists of, and he explained that it depends on who you talk to.??In his opinion, it’s an egg, beans, rashers, and pudding, both white and??black. I said that’s what I wanted and he even threw in sausage and toast for free. It didn’t look like a whole lot on the plate, but it was very filling and delicious.
After that we went on an hour walk through the city. We saw Grafton Street, Trinity College, St. Stephen’s Green, and Dublin Castle. I would have loved to see more, but by then it was time to head to the airport and bring our year-long trip to an end.
Nikki: Eating an Irish breakfast.
Brad: The Irish breakfast.
Nikki: Dealing with our stupid hostel. The staff seemed to have no idea what was going on and the place was really dirty.
Brad: Dealing with the hostel. They got our reservation wrong and it took a long time to sort out.
Favorite??person we met?
Nikki: Dennis, who gave us a great breakfast.
Brad: Dennis, the owner of the place we ate our traditional Irish breakfast. He was very nice and talkative.
Nikki: Going through US customs and immigration in the Dublin airport. My passport had somehow been marked as invalid, so we had to go to the “Admissions Review” room in the back and get grilled by an incredulous officer for five minutes. Luckily they decided we weren’t a national security threat.
Brad: The U.S. customs pre-clearance process. The line was long and slow and the personnel rude. Nikki went to the “extra questioning” area because the Bangkok embassy messed up when she got extra passport pages. Our flight was 30 minutes late because of how slow the overly-paranoid U.S. government bureaucracy was.
We visited Germany twice on our quick spiral around Western Europe. We spent several quick days in the north of Germany and wrapped up our trip by celebrating Oktoberfest in Bavaria. There’s a lot left to see in this country, but it’ll have to wait for a future trip. Here’s what we thought about what we did see.
Top three experiences?
- The English Garden in Munich. It was a little chilly out, but besides that, it was a great place to hang out and listen to music.
- The random pub we went to in Hamburg.
- Oktoberfest. We had a lot of fun! The rotisserie chicken was really, really good.
- Tempelhof Airport in Berlin. Hanging out on a runway was pretty fun!
- Hamburg’s trendy HafenCity.
Bottom three experiences?
- The snorer we had in our room in Berlin. I am not going to miss sleeping in dorms!
- Cold, rainy weather in all three cities.
- Visiting the Berlin wall.
- The S- and U-Bahn route map in Berlin was impossible to read.
- The Berlin Wall. The cheesy graffiti just didn’t do it for me.
- We had a snorer in our room in Berlin.
Nikki: I think the currywurst at Oktoberfest was the best, but I also enjoyed all the pretzels, bratwurst, and chicken.
Brad: The rotisserie-grilled half-chickens at Oktoberfest. The meat just fell off the bone.
Nikki: I can’t really think of anything bad…
Brad: The buffet breakfast we had at our hostel in Berlin sucked. It was expensive, but ended up being little more than toast.
Favorite person we met?
Nikki: Peter, the friend we made at Oktoberfest. He was a really funny, interesting guy.
Brad: Peter from Oktoberfest.
Nikki: We had a near-miss when Brad thought he had lost his wedding ring (turns out it was in his backpack), but I think the worst thing that happened was when we accidentally paid double for the Munich transportation system day pass.
Brad: Hamburg’s City Hall was closed to tours when we visited because Parliament was in session.
Favorite place we stayed?
Nikki: The Superbude Hostel in Hamburg. It was a new hotel-hostel fusion and turned out to be a great place to stay.
Brad: Despite being in the middle of nowhere, our hostel room in Munich was pretty nice.
Worst place we stayed?
Nikki: The Meininger Hostel in Berlin. It was a new hotel-hostel fusion and turned out to be a bad place to stay.
Brad: The hostel in Berlin. The staff didn’t record that we paid our second night, and wanted us to pay twice. The staff weren’t friendly.
Nikki: I’d say the river surfers in Munich. Watching them was pretty fun.
Brad: All of the tourist industry street workers in Berlin were focused at the Brandenburg Gate. There was an incredible concentration of human statues, people dressed in old US or Soviet military uniforms, and pretzel vendors. There were also a fair number of people making a living by wearing gorilla or bear suits.